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Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace
As at the Winter Palace, Catherine the Great had many of Rastrelli s interiors remodelled in classical style. Most of the exterior and 20-odd rooms of the palace have been beautifully restored – compare them to the photographs showing the devastation by the Germans.

Visits normally start with the State Staircase, an 1860 addition. South of here, only two rooms (both by Rastrelli) have been restored: the Gentlemen-in-Waiting’s Dining Room and, beyond, the Great Hall, all light and glitter from its mirrors and gilded woodcarvings.

The rooms north of the State Staircase on the courtyard side are the State Dining Room, Crimson and Green Pilaster Rooms, Portrait Room and the Amber Room. The latter was decorated by Rastrelli with gilded woodcarvings, mirrors, agate and jasper mosaics, and exquisitely engraved amber panels given to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia in 1716. But its treasures were plundered by the Nazis and went missing
in Kaliningrad in 1945, becoming one of the art world’s great mysteries.

In 2004 the strange hoax was revealed – the Amber Room was destroyed in a fire in Kaliningrad while under Red Army occupation. Those responsible for the loss were so terrified of Stalin’s reaction that an elaborate myth was created of its disappearance – one that Soviet art historians wasted years trying to solve. In 2004 Putin and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroder presided over the opening of the new Amber Room, restored largely with German funds, and visitors can again see this spectacular room.

Most of the north end is Charles Cameron’s early classical work. The proportions of the Green Dining Room on the courtyard side are typically elegant.

There are also three rooms
Around the Catherine Palace extends the lovely Catherine Park. The main entrance is on Sadovaya ul, next to the palace chapel. The Cameron Gallery has changing exhibitions. Between the gallery and the palace, notice the south-pointing ramp that Cameron added for the ageing empress to walk down into the park.
The park’s outer section focuses on the Great Pond, where you can rent boats in summer. An intriguing array of structures here includes the Pyramid, where Catherine the Great buried her favourite dogs, the Chinese Pavilion (or Creaking Summerhouse), the Marble Bridge (copied from one in Wilton, England) and the Ruined Tower, which was built ‘ready-ruined’ in keeping with a 1770s romantic fashion – an 18th-century empress’s
equivalent of prefaded denim.

A short distance north of the Catherine Palace, the classical Alexander Palace was built by Quarenghi between 1792 and 1796 for the future Alexander I, but Nicholas II was its main tenant. It’s the least touristy palace, so in some ways the most pleasant. The overgrown and empty Alexander Park surrounds the palace.

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